The hardware and software model of reality

Summary: Without any good arguments or evidence to indicate the contrary, I now choose to believe, and think I have good reason to believe, that our entire experience with reality — no matter how profound, beautiful and mysterious it may be — is nothing more than the eventual result of purely physical, biological and biochemical processes.

Disclaimer: I now find myself in a situation in my life where I can be, and am willing to admit to being, wrong about my opinions and viewpoints. I don’t have all the picture, and certainly don’t have it all right. However, for everything that I do claim to believe, I think I have good reason to. I’m always open to having my beliefs challenged now, so feel free to do so.

Studying computer engineering — hardware and abstraction

Several years ago I was in my second year of my computer engineering degree. I really enjoyed learning about how computers work and digging deep into the details. In my first semester of the year, I took a course on computer architecture, which taught us in good detail about how computers work at the basic level; things like the CPU, registers, pipelines, memory, operations and assembly.

I remember having an epiphany one day in class, partially in connection with a conversation with my teacher after class as we discussed and rehashed some of the implications of what he was teaching. The epiphany went something like this:

“Given the knowledge that I now have, I am able to perceive the entire journey of hardware through to software. I am able to perceive how everything that happens on computers is ultimately a result of the physical activities that occur within the basic hardware — only they have been augmented by layers and layers and layers of repeated abstraction and simplification. ‘Build an abstraction platform, and then use it. Use it some more until the point where another level of an abstraction platform can be built. And eventually you have all of computing, right down to my everyday experience with computers’ “

I realised that our daily experience with computers and the software we use was merely increasingly higher levels of abstraction made possible, ultimately, by the hardware underneath the platforms. Without the hardware, there is no software, and the software was ultimately abstraction built upon hardware.

Right now I am writing an article on my blog in WordPress. WordPress is a PHP and mysql based web blogging platform. PHP and mysql are frameworks supported in multiple web server systems, for instance Apache server. Apache is a software platform that sits on top of an operating system. Operating systems are incredible sets of abstraction that sit on top of, and manage for the user, the hardware of a computer, and are ultimately programmed in quite low level languages. Within a few hops you can map out how operating systems directly control and manage hardware devices. All of this incredible abstraction, all sitting there so that I can see this on my screen:


UPDATE: This talk is excellent to describe this

Human consciousness and materialism

I think it’s incredible that humans have evolved to a point where our consciousness is sophisticated enough that we are able to turn the focus inwards and ponder the nature of our own existence!

“What am I? Why do I perceive? What is the nature of me? What is reality?”

These are beautiful and massively profound questions that we have been asking ourselves pretty much ever since we found ourselves capable of asking them. We yearn and hunger for profound answers to these questions.

While I am certainly no expert in the inner workings of the brain and the body, and would defer to such experts to “join the dots” so to say of what I’m about to claim, I think I know enough about the brain and body to set up this simple claim:

Belief: I think that our consciousness and our entire experience with reality are nothing more than high levels of abstraction, “software” if you will, built on the platform of “hardware” which is our physical bodies and the physical world we find ourselves in. I don’t believe there are any other contributing components aside for those that can be accounted for by physical world. 

Naturally, you’ll recognise this statement of belief constitutes materalism — “a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all phenomena, including mental phenomena and consciousness, are identical with material interactions.”. I now find myself identifying with this philosophy.

How I get materialism — there’s nothing else left really

Losing one’s faith is not just a simple process of changing one’s opinions about a few matters. To the contrary, it involves a complete re-write of most of one’s viewpoints and almost one’s entire worldview.

Given that I have lost a belief in the fundamental tenets and claims of Mormonism, one associated loss is the belief in the existence of such a thing as a “spirit”. One of the fundamental doctrinal / philosophical claims of Mormonism (and many other religions) is the notion that our physical bodies are “quickened” by the insertion of our “spirit”, which ultimately finds its origins in God. This augments our reality to not just be a result of physical processes, but spiritual ones as well.

I’m not writing this article to challenge the conceptual framework of Mormonism or other religions in detail. Suffice it to say I find myself with reason enough (in my mind and within my integrity) to disbelieve in those frameworks.

Once one no longer has the doctrinal frameworks to have the “spiritual” component of reality, what is left to fall back on? Well, we know that the physical world / reality “exists” (at least in the context that it is the reality we find ourselves in, it could be “the matrix” but we just don’t know, we do know this is “reality” within its own context) — and really, without any good evidence to the contrary, how does one support an argument that there really is anything else but the physical world? Based on the perceived authority of someone “who said so”?

Hence I find myself here, in the physical world, with no other world to fall back on. And I find myself in this world at a really good time for science. Increasingly we are able to explain the nature of human consciousness and perception from a scientific point of view. There’s a point where the “brain” ends and the “mind” begins. This is the intersection of the hardware and software — with consciousness as the ongoing electrochemical storm in your brain.

I find the materialistic conclusion consistent with Occam’s Razor as well. It is the most parsimonious explanation of reality and consciousness.

Does this diminish the majesty of consciousness?

In his lecture series the varieties of religious experience, philosopher William James goes into a deep-dive into the religious / spiritual experiences people have. But before doing so, he spends an inordinate amount of time drilling the following point, which I will summarise tersely thus:

“Just because we can understand and explain a religious / spiritual experience in the context of the human physical body and psychology, doesn’t diminish it’s beauty, majesty or profundity”

That’s a great summary of how I see the materialistic worldview. I see it like this:

“So what if consciousness is merely a highly complex electrochemical process occurring in the human brain? Does that make it any less significant or profound to us as the ones experiencing it? Similarly, just because we can explain orgasm purely in scientific and biological frameworks and language does that mean it is any less pleasurable or beautiful or real to the individual experiencing it? Just because psychology is the study of the software that runs on hardware at high levels of abstraction, does it make it any less valid or useful to its practitioners? What is so unsatisfactory about the physical world explaining our existence?”

I don’t feel like the materialistic worldview diminishes the profundity of reality any more than understanding how taste buds impacts the real taste of food. Just because we can explain reality without invoking God or other mystic sources doesn’t make reality any less “real” or profound to us as the ones experiencing it.

I think that in our yearnings for “something more”, we build a bridge to a murky area that isn’t actually real. I think so-called “spiritual truth” is subject to an issue which I’ll term “ultimate nebulosity” (I have an article on this coming later) — The supportive evidence and arguments in favour of a non-materialistic worldview (E.G, a reality with “body AND spirit and / or (something else)”) do not seem solid or strong to me. Do we have any really good arguments in favour of “something more” aside from merely assertion from perceived authority figures or spiritual experiences which are highly inconsistent and unreliable?

However, I am still quite a noob in the area of philosophy, and am always open to feedback.

But to use a cliché phrase, this worldview “really makes sense” (to me).

Shawn 19-03-2016

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